“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” This statement by First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention unleashed a firestorm of debate about her motives and accuracy. After critics confirmed that enslaved people did build the White House, conservative commentators insisted that the “slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
The effort to reduce American slavery to a benign, romantic institution is a deeply rooted tradition. After the Civil War, Southern whites used power reacquired through violence and discrimination to construct a false narrative about slavery. They dominated public memory by erecting tax-funded monuments that glorify the Confederacy. By this retelling, the Confederate cause was noble, the war was not about slavery, and enslaved people were happy, loyal, and should be remembered for their faithfulness to slaveholders.
In 1901, a Dothan, Alabama, newspaper urged state officials to build “a fitting remembrance to those old, faithful Black mammies and Uncle Remuses.” Such monuments still stand today.
American slavery was always dehumanizing and barbaric, and was often bloody, brutal, and violent. Enslaved people were chained, beaten, humiliated, and denigrated in every conceivable way. Generations of Black children were born into bondage because America made slavery hereditary for Black people. Enslaved women endured sexual violence and abuse, and families lived in constant fear of separation. The effort to deny these truths continues a historical effort to deny humanity.